Bonnie Sutherland flew to Kenya with a skeleton in her suitcase.
It lay diagonally in her luggage, wrapped up in a big comforter with an official looking letter explaining the bones had no commercial value. When Sutherland transferred to a domestic flight to get to Kisumu, she had to tell three young security guards that they weren’t human bones in her bag, just a model headed for the local university.
It’s all in a day’s work when you run your own non-profit organization.
Since 2000, Sutherland has been at the helm of Afretech, an NGO that sends books and educational resources to schools and libraries across Africa. By her reckoning, Afretech has helped around half a million people – and that’s on the conservative side. For every library Afretech puts in, an entire community is affected.
“I like what I do, and I think that gives me self-worth,” Sutherland said, sitting in the living room of her North Delta house as a cloudy mist drifted over the distant views of Burns Bog and Point Roberts. The tranquil sound of her front yard waterfall trickled through the window and a series of African paintings adorned the wall behind her head.
“But also it gives me an opportunity to build self-worth in others.”
Sutherland has been building that self-worth since 1992, long before Afretech came into being. It started when Sutherland and her husband Donald took five and a half months to travel around the world after he retired from teaching. Bonnie, 21 years his junior, took time away from her own job as an English teacher to travel with him.
They went to New Zealand to visit Donald’s family and friends, took an apartment in London for a while, spent some time in Greece – “Greek isles in early May are very nice you know” – and then flew to Israel. They stopped in Germany and even borrowed a villa in the South of France.
Along the way, they ended up in Zimbabwe, where some acquaintances – “friends of friends of friends,” Sutherland called them – were building a school in Victoria Falls.
“They had absolutely nothing,” Sutherland said. “And we said, ‘Well we have access to some books.’”
The Sutherlands didn’t make any promises – a practice Bonnie maintains with Afretech, “because I don’t want to promise to deliver if I can’t do it,” – but when the couple got back to Canada, they sent over a pallet of encyclopedias, math textbooks and library books.
“It really got that little school started,” she said. “It was quite an eye opener.”
From there the couple kept giving, using their own money to send books and computers all over Africa to set up school and community libraries.
Seven years and many shipments of books later, the Sutherlands gathered some friends and neighbours and formed Afretech.
“We’re not a big group,” Sutherland said. “But we’re effective.”
Much of the funding is done through the people involved – Afretech isn’t what Sutherland calls a “glamorous charity.” Many of the books used to come through the Delta School District, and computers are still provided by institutions like universities that no longer need them.
“[Now], it’s getting harder and harder to get books and send the right kinds of books,” Sutherland said. “I knew everybody [at the school district] at the time. Now I don’t know everybody and they’re sort of saying who is this lady?”
That hasn’t stopped Sutherland’s charity work though. For example, one year ago the library at Sweetwaters Primary, a school outside of a small town 200 miles north of Nairobi, had no books and a dirt floor.
Now, Sweetwaters has 3,000 books and a concrete floor (pictured), and classes are scheduled in the library three times a day. The library could be better organized – “they managed to keep fiction and non-fiction separate, but that’s about it,” Sutherland said – but it’s already had a huge effect on the school.
In Kenya, every student has to take the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exam when they reach Standard 8, the last year of primary school. This exam, ubiquitous across the country, is a right of passage. If the student passes, they can move on to secondary school. If they fail, that’s the end of their education.
According to Sutherland, about half the kids in the country fail the exam, and the same was true at Sweetwaters.
But the year after the library was put in, something changed. The exam is out of 400, and for the first time ever they had kids score over 300.
“More than that, the average mark rose by 45 points and every child got a placement in a good high school, whereas before 50 per cent were sent home,” she said. “It gives me goosebumps.”
Of course, not every story is a success story. There are a lot of roadblocks to getting educational supplies to places in Africa.
In one instance, several flat-screen computers were stolen before they made their way to the library Sutherland was creating. She didn’t take it lying down.
She laid a formal complaint in writing with the Kenya Revenue Association and another to the high commissioner to Kenya in Ottawa.
“The day I left Kenya, I wrote an article on corruption outlining two instances of corruption and posted it to their local newspaper,” she laughed. “If nothing else, they’ll flag me and say ‘Leave that one alone, she just makes too much noise.’”
Another time, she interrupted a VIP party for Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, to tell him that a pallet of books wasn’t being moved through customs quick enough.
“Well it’s amazing how fast those books came out. They just flew out!” she said.
“I found normally if you do outrageous things but you do them for the right reasons – I don’t know who or what is watching over us, but someone or something is.”
Sutherland’s personal life hasn’t always been easy either. She retired from teaching in 2003 because her husband was entering the early stages of dementia. He lived with her at home until 2008 and passed away in 2014.
But when Sutherland stopped working to be with her husband, it wasn’t exactly retirement.
“I didn’t retire, I just shifted focus,” she said.
She joined the North Delta Rotary almost as soon as she retired, and not long after joined Rotary World Help, another charity. She helped get the B.C. government’s Write To Read project off the ground, and continued her work with Afretech.
“I think it’s what kept me sane,” she said. “It just keeps me out of myself. There’s so much more to the world than what you had for breakfast.”